Editorials

Protecting taxpayers, Kansas City comes up with a better retirement plan for politicians and judges

Thirty Kansas City politicians and municipal court judges get retirement paychecks from the city, topping out at almost $96,000 a year for a former judge. However, the city fortunately has closed this overly generous retirement plan and set up one for current and future elected officials and judges that’s more mindful of taxpayers.
Thirty Kansas City politicians and municipal court judges get retirement paychecks from the city, topping out at almost $96,000 a year for a former judge. However, the city fortunately has closed this overly generous retirement plan and set up one for current and future elected officials and judges that’s more mindful of taxpayers. MCT

Charles DeFeo retired about a dozen years ago as a full-time municipal court judge in Kansas City. His reward from the city is retirement pay of $95,627 a year.

DeFeo is the highest paid of the 30 former mayors, City Council members and judges who are covered under a special retirement system set up just for them. It’s separate from the four pension systems that cover thousands of police, firefighters and other city employees.

The Star recently requested the current annual payments given to elected officials and judges as part of a more comprehensive review of how pension reform is affecting taxpayers and city employees.

On Sunday, we noted that changes to the four major pension plans have put them on firmer financial footing. However, the city can do more to control the rate of public contributions that go into them.

Today, we review how taxpayers in recent years have provided funds to retired politicians and judges.

Among the figures supplied under a Freedom of Information request:

▪ Kansas City’s municipal court judges have been extremely well paid for years, and it shows in their retirement pay. Besides DeFeo, three others get $72,000 or more a year from the city. They are James Karl, $93,774; Marcia Walsh, $83,998; and Victor Rocha, $72,714.

▪ Richard Berkley is the highest paid former mayor on the list. He receives $34,447 annually, followed by Kay Barnes at $24,746 and Emanuel Cleaver at $23,194.

▪ The highest payments for retired City Council members go to Robert Hernandez, $20,994 a year; Alvin Brooks, $17,007; and Joanne Collins, $14,500.

However, the retirement arrangements worked out for politicians and judges have been changed dramatically in recent years, and that’s good news for taxpayers.

When Kansas City officials began looking at pension reform in late 2010, an obvious potential change jumped out at some of them. Fortunately, the City Council a few months later closed the overly generous special retirement plan to new members.

The last officials who made it into the special system are the six council members who were elected in 2007 and re-elected in 2011.

The city now pumps public money into retirement accounts — similar to a 401(k) — for Mayor Sly James and six council members who first took office on May 1, 2011.

The same system will cover all other future elected officials plus any municipal court judges hired after that date.

But the city only contributes a flat 10 percent of the employees’ salaries into the accounts. The amounts are about $12,500 a year for James, $6,000 for council members and $15,000 for judges.

The current and future public officials benefit because they don’t have to place any of their earnings into the retirement accounts.

“What they earn is theirs to keep,” says City Manager Troy Schulte.

The city will not have to provide a guaranteed monthly paycheck with cost of living adjustments for future politicians and judges, as is done for DeFeo, Berkley, Barnes and others.

In the long run, taxpayers won’t be on the hook for steadily increasing amounts of pension payments to the officials.

The new plan is a more taxpayer-friendly approach and worth celebrating.

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